President Trump just tapped as the Education Department’s No. 2 official a former state superintendent of South Carolina who opposes the Common Core State Standards and who in 2016 called Jeb Bush “the only candidate” prepared to be president.
Trump announced Tuesday night that he was nominating Mitchell Zais as deputy secretary of education, one of only a handful of positions the president has filled in the department to support Secretary Betsy DeVos. Both Zais and DeVos are strong supporters of school choice and both have criticized a strong federal presence in education policy.
Zais spent three decades in the Army and retired as a brigadier general before serving for 10 years as president of the private Newberry College in South Carolina, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He ran for election as the state’s superintendent of education and won, serving one term from 2011 to 2015.
South Carolina adopted the Common Core math and English language arts standards in 2010, at about the same time that most other states did. Zais took office vowing to end it and swiftly withdrew the state from participation in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, a competition for federal funds that pushed states to adopt favored policies, including common standards. Zais said at the time that Race to the Top “expands the federal role in education by offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington,” according to WISTV. In 2014, the South Carolina legislature repealed the Core and replaced it with standards that resemble the Core.
Trump repeatedly said during the presidential campaign that he was going to “get rid of the Common Core,” and this past December, DeVos, too, said the administration would put an “end to the federal Common Core.” However, the initiative can’t be ended by the federal government because it was approved by officials in the individual states and only the states can decide to drop it. A number of states have repealed and replaced the Core, but the majority are still using the standards, even if they changed the name.
Zais is a strong supporter of school choice, pushing a bill in 2012 to expand charter schools and calling it his top legislative priority, and he backed a tax credit scholarship program for students with special needs that launched in 2014 and uses public funds to pay for private and religious school tuition.
Although former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a supporter of the Common Core, Zais backed him when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination. On Feb. 17, 2016, Zais wrote a letter that was published in the Post and Courier that endorsed Bush, saying in part:
Competent leadership is not indicated by who can yell the loudest, give the most moving speeches, promise the most free stuff, or insult the most people.
Instead, it’s shown by strength of character, experienced judgment, respect for others, and a record of achievement in governance.
Jeb Bush is the only candidate who is prepared from day-one to be commander in chief. He will keep America safe. He deserves our vote.
Zais’s spot is one of only a handful of key positions that Trump has filled in the Education Department. Last week, Trump nominated school choice supporter Jim Blew as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy. Blew has worked for the Walton Family Foundation and was national president of former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst group before it merged with another organization.
This is a list of 13 top positions in the department underneath DeVos and Zais, showing how far Trump has gone in filling them. This comes from an appointment tracker maintained by The Washington Post and the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service: